Sandra Bullock's Ideal Happiness Is Bad News for Author Douglas Glover
Bad News of the Heart
by Douglas Glover
(Dalkey Archive Press) $13.95
What is it about true love that simultaneously attracts and repulses us? The characters in Douglas Glover's newest short story collection, Bad News of the Heart, understand that the most complex human emotion requires a complex response, and seem helpless in the face of this great force; seem apologetic, almost, about the evils they must perpetrate on one another, and all for having made the horrible mistake of falling in love.
Pop music, Valentine's Day, and movies starring Sandra Bullock have lulled us into the idea that love is some kind of aegis from the relentless maelstrom of the cruelty-infested war-torn world--let the bombs fall, as long as we have each other! And by all means, if this illusion is the only thing standing between you and madness, do not pick up Bad News of the Heart, in which Glover exposes the ugly, rotten, flesh-eating side of love.
The 12 stories of the collection are held together by common motifs--most of the stories are set in Canada, and populated by amnesiacs, mental patients, tortured artists, and other fringe elements--and tied by a common voice that often reflects upon the inability of the written story to capture the actuality of the event (that old postmodern cry redux), while bemoaning the narrator's sorry love life--as one character reflects, "we fall in love with each other's failings, with our own vulnerabilities mirrored in the other." That sentence, from the first story in the collection, finds many echoes throughout the book: small barbs that wend their way through these 12 stories, waiting to assault the unwary reader.
Initially I read these stories with a kind of protective shield thrown up around me, scratching notes in the margin about clumsy plot development and annoying intrusions from the narrative voice, but soon found myself flipping pages much more quickly than my pen could keep up with--not with pure enjoyment always, but with the same mix of attraction and repulsion experienced by the protagonists themselves, a desperate need to find out what happened next. These stories operate on a level language can't touch, which is perhaps why Glover's narrators are doomed to bemoan the impossibility of squaring the written story with the known story, the heart's story.
It is possible to read this collection with one's suit of armor in place, to appreciate "A Man in a Box"--in which a homeless (and, surprise, amnesiac) man constructs reality according to dictums written on yellow Post-it notes--as a modern-day Beckett play; or to snigger at the George Saunders-esque satire of the working world in "The Indonesian Client." But this kind of detached, arm's-length enjoyment closes one off from the real joy and sadness of the collection, which can only be attained by capitulating, if only for a couple hundred pages, to Glover's worldview: that the world is not, in fact, programmed for our happiness.
In all of these stories there are fleeting glimpses of happier times, but they are always distant somehow, as if seen from behind a thick sheet of glass, and we must settle instead for the grim smiles and black humor of this side of the world. As Virgil to our Dante, Glover's persona is a good guide--humorous if a bit overly self-reflective, and with a well-timed joke or cutting observation able to pull himself out of a tailspin into sadness. It's not true happiness, but it's as close as we, who have made this awful world and now must live in it, can get.